Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Historiography of Babel

When Borges’ Library of Babel is invoked, it is normally described synchronically, i.e., at one particular moment in time. Indeed, I suspect that our current understanding of the Library, or any understanding of the Library, depends on ignoring its diachronic aspect. When this is acknowledged we understand that we are dealing merely with the ravings of a madman. “The Library of Babel” is incomprehensible.

According to the narrator, there is no doubt that the Library has a history. He himself claims, for example, to have a biography. “I have travelled in my youth,” he tells us. “I am preparing to die.” And while the Library is said to exist eternally, it has a history of ancient and modern conflict and struggle. It has a social order. It has a notion of genius.

And yet it has no school. No hospital. No family dwellings. It has neither a legal system nor a prison industry. It has no seat of government.

As in our own Universe, however, the most significant events in the history of the Library seem to be quite recent: “a general theory of the Library” was developed three hundred years ago. Five hundred years ago a book was found that would later allow “a librarian of genius to discover the fundamental law of the Library.”

“For a long time it was believed that these impenetrable books belonged to past or remote languages. It is true that the most ancient men, the first librarians, made use of a language quite different from the one we speak today.”

The library itself does not change, yet its language does.

These apparently historical facts raise important questions of scholarship, journalism and documentation. Where, after all, is the living history of the library recorded? How were the various theories of the library communicated, discussed and discarded? Where are the newspapers and the scholarly journals? Where is the much more orderly catalogue of these writings, which have been produced, not by the original builders of the library, but by its melancholy librarians? Where, in the vast library, is there room for discourse?

The lack of answers to these questions suggests a very simple solution, which I have suggested in an earlier post. There is only one ‘gallery’ in the library. It may contain little more than a single book, a mirror and a deranged mind. These implements are sufficient to conjure up the infinite and incoherent fantasy of a total library.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


The artist is concerned with producing something that will be enjoyable even after a successful revolution.

Ezra Pound, "The State", SP, p. 184

My favourite act of misreading, as far as my own misreadings are concerned, had me thinking Tony Tost had written, "We usually know a poem that is dispatched from the State when we read it," in "Disarm the Settlers". Though I quickly realized my mistake, the sentence has stuck with me. I'd say it remains a "Tostian" attitude in any case.

I've been thinking about it in relation to Soft Targets 2 and was reminded of it again when I read Pound's "The State", in which he makes his familiar distinction between "the state as convenience" (res publica) and "the state as infernal nuisance".

I think there is an important relation between the State and the Poet. I think all states depend on a certain "disposition" or configuration of emotion in their populations. Poetry tweaks that configuration, and may therefore be inimical to the interests of state at a particular time. (Tonight I am not wholly committed to the idea that any degree of emotional precision is anti-statist, but the thought does cross my mind sometimes.)

Pound said that the politician who picks the right artist is "blessed". That is, the (true) artist is always way ahead of the revolution. I like this idea. I don't like the equal and opposite idea: the artist who sides with the right politician is blessed. This may only be a matter of emphasis, but I think it makes all the difference.